The Huguenots were members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France. They were inspired by the writings of John Calvin in the 1530s. Huguenots were strongly critical of the doctrine and worship of the Catholic Church. They saw Christianity as simple faith in God, and relied upon God for salvation rather than the Church's sacraments or rituals. Huguenot numbers grew rapidly between 1555 and 1561, chiefly amongst nobles and city dwellers. The Huguenots in France peaked in number at approximately two million, compared to approximately sixteen million Catholics during the same period.
As the Huguenots gained influence and displayed their faith more openly, Roman Catholic hostility towards them grew. These tensions spurred eight civil wars between 1562 and 1598. The wars began with a massacre at Wassy on 1 March 1562, when dozens of Huguenots were killed. Following this initial massacre, the Huguenots rallied a considerable army and cavalry. The wars gradually took on a dynastic character, developing into an extended feud between the Houses of Bourbon, allied to the Huguenots, and Guise, allied to the Catholics. Both staked a claim to the French throne.
In what became known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (24 August - 3 October 1572), Catholics killed as many as 25,000 Huguenots in Paris. Similar massacres took place in other towns over the following weeks. The number of dead throughout the country is not known. An amnesty in 1573 pardoned the perpetrators.
Episodic civil war continued over the next fifteen years until 1598, when King Henry IV recanted Protestantism in favour of Roman Catholicism and issued the Edict of Nantes. The Edict established Catholicism as the state religion of France, but granted Protestants equality with Catholics and a degree of religious and political freedom within their domains.
However, enforcement of the Edict grew increasingly irregular over time. When Louis XIV came to the throne persecution resumed, and many Huguenots fled France. The Huguenot population of France had fallen to 856,000 by the mid-1660s. Louis became increasingly aggressive in his efforts to force conversions among the Huguenots. He imposed penalties, closed Huguenot schools and excluded Huguenots from certain professions. Soldiers were tasked to occupy and loot Huguenot houses. In 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and declared Protestantism to be illegal under the Edict of Fontainebleau. This resulted in the flight from the country of about 180,000 Protestants. They emigrated to countries such as England, Switzerland, the Dutch Republic, the German Electorate of Prussia, the German Palatinate and elsewhere in Northern Europe, as well as South Africa and North America. Many became leading professionals in their new host countries; their loss dealt a serious blow to the French economy.
On 31 December 1687 the first organised group of Huguenots set sail for the Dutch East India Company post at the Cape of Good Hope. The largest portion of the Huguenots to settle in the Cape arrived between 1688 and 1700. Many of these settlers chose an area that was later called Franschoek (French Corner), in the now Western Cape. The official policy in the Western Cape was to fuse the Huguenot community and the Dutch community into one.